“Is it possible to have a revolution on a football Sunday?” Umberto Eco
“Today is the true ‘paribartan' our Chief Minister had promised a year ago,” M.K. Narayanan
The scenes witnessed in Kolkata yesterday, calls for serious reflection on many issues. Thousands of people coming out on the streets to celebrate the win of a private club, owned by millionaires; the state government unabashedly joining and hosting the party with loud music and dances for the masses; the euphoria of the crowd in Eden Gardens and also the high passion with which IPL was followed by the people and supporters of KKR—all call for an analysis of what is happening! I am not a student of sociology at all. Hence, I do not claim any authority for what I have to say. However, I think that certain issues have been brought to the fore by the show yesterday which needs to be critically examined. My effort is mainly to pose certain questions in this regard.
The first question that comes to my mind is why should people in Kolkata or Chennai or any other city support city based private clubs, which hardly have any local players? To be sure, this is not only an issue pertaining to the IPL but also reflects an emerging trend all over the globe. For example, there are millions of people who support Manchester United or Barcelona without belonging to either of these cities. The people in these cities also support these clubs, even when there are hardly any local links that can be established vis-à-vis the club and the city. Millions of dollars are spent by the owners of the club to buy players and in return they earn hefty amount of money through match entry-fees as well as selling merchandise products, advertisements, etc. The production of the sport, either football or cricket, then is nothing but a production of a saleable commodity. In order to sell any commodity you need to have demand for it. Therefore, the spectators are absolutely essential as consumers of this product. But this commodity has a peculiar characteristic. The consumers of the commodity (sports) are not merely consumers but identify themselves culturally as being a part of the system (club) which produces the commodity. How does that take place?
In case of other commodities, advertisements definitely play a role in cultivating brand attachments. But for football or cricket it is not merely brand attachment. You will not find consumers of Nokia and Samsung going into a heated argument about the relative qualities of the product, no matter how strongly the person believes so. But you will always find people having heated discussions, going to the extent of mob violence in the course of the argument as to which team is better and which is worse. This bringing into being an identity based on sports, which obviously plays on the identities of nation and region is an issue which needs serious deliberations. The Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm for example, argues that the coming into being of these large football clubs and their global supporters is a result of globalization, where the national identities have taken a backseat. These identities however, in the case of IPL, have been manufactured by the corporate and the media. Constantly, ever since the IPL has begun we have heard and read how KKR is basically Kolkata, how CSK is Chennai and so forth.
This coming into being of a dedicated consumer of the sports in the form of passionate spectators is essential for the clubs and the game to survive. This phenomenon is aided by the fact that the consumption of sports, by definition, is a collective enterprise. Thousands of spectators in the gallery, millions of spectators in the home, all consume the commodity (sports) together, without the utility of anybody decreasing. The pleasure or the spectacle that is produced in the sports essentially therefore exists only if it is consumed collectively. In other words, the euphoria of sports spectators in essence must be collective. Therefore, the expression of this euphoria should also be collective. If as a consumer, your derivation of utility from the act of consumption can be only in the collective, you will go to the collective to express your joy.
This collective form of enjoyment on the other hand gives rise to an illusion of being a part of a collective and the existence of an outside (the team whom “we” do not support). We engage in vociferous debates with each other on the merits of our teams. This is what Umberto Eco, in his book Faith in Fakes, calls sports chatter. He goes on to say that
“Such chatter seems therefore the parody of political talk; but since in this parody the strength that the citizen had at his disposal for political debate is vitiated and disciplined, this chatter is the ersatz of political speech, but to such a heightened degree that it becomes itself political speech…..[S]ports chatter convinces him that this energy is expended to conclude something. Having allayed his doubt, sport fulfils its role of fake conscience.”
According to Umberto Eco therefore sports chatter substitutes politics or robs people of politics. In other words, there is a politics behind keeping people involved in sports chatter—the politics of destruction of politics.
It is this politics that was on full display at Eden Gardens yesterday, epitomized by the quote of the Governor of West Bengal, that this is the change that Mamata promised a year ago. Over the last one year, people of Bengal have experienced the change. There have been many points of criticism of the government; many of the promises made are far from being realized. In the midst of this spectacle of the sporting celebration, this utterance is made that ‘this is the pariborton’. The euphoria that was there within the people when Mamata came to power is gone in the last one year. People are criticizing this government. The Governor with this statement made the people relive the euphoria of Mamata’s win through the prism of the KKR win. This statement then is the most political statement made in Eden Gardens, where people are told that it is this euphoria that was the promise—live it and forget the rest.
The spontaneous mass participation in KKR’s victory party yesterday was highly political due to many reasons. We have witnessed a creation of an identity by the corporates and the media just by naming a corporate club in the name of a city. This phenomenon itself calls for a detailed study. Why are common people identifying themselves with KKR? Some of my friends who are supporters of KKR tell me that the support for KKR is basically to oppose another group of friends who are supporters of Pune because Ganguly is playing there. For them, Kolkata must come before an individual like Ganguly and therefore you need to support KKR. But where is Kolkata in KKR! There are only three players who play for Bengal, all others are outside the state and the team. A senior Bengali journalist said on TV that the fact that Bengalis are supporting KKR in spite of the fact that there are hardly any Bengali cricketers in the team shows that Bengalis are not regional. Then, the question is why rejoice at KKR victory and not for CSK victory! It is obvious that the celebrations are because Kolkata is attached to the name of the team. Hence regionalism plays its part. But I think that this regionalism is without any substance. It is a corporate and media manufactured mirage. Why do people believe in this? Lack of credible icons in the state or is it the lure of collective pleasure irrespective of whether it is IPL or disco? What it has shown however is that media and the corporates have immense control over people’s minds. Kolkata does not generate even half the enthusiasm when East Bengal or Mohun Bagan wins the National League or when the Bengal cricket team wins the Vijay Hazare or the Ranji Trophy.
The second reason why it was political was obvious—the involvement of the TMC-led government. However, the issue goes deeper. It is nobody’s argument that by organizing and participating in the merry-making yesterday, Mamata has won over the people for good. But the point is that the TMC has to create euphoria for the masses as well as reap political mileage out of it, since the euphoria blinds people from her politics and is endear to the lumpen-proletariats who are one of the core mass base of TMC. So, even on the day of martyrdom of TMC cadres, Tollywood stars danced on the stage of Mamata Banerjee and she is there when the KKR wins IPL. This is the way of enthralling the people and giving them entertainment from a political stage. For the people then, going to such rallies of TMC becomes no different from going to a cultural program. The entertainment value of the performances as well as the political persona of Mamata feed each other. In the process the critical perspective towards politics is lost.
The process of this propensity towards experiencing collective fake euphoria is aided by the demise of other collective organizations of the people. The development of capitalism all over the world, and also in India has practically decimated the organized working class movement. The working class no more act collectively under a production plant and produce commodities. The production process itself has got fragmented, with putting-out, piece-meal systems coming back. In this situation informal sector becomes the biggest employer of the people. But people in the informal sector do not form a collective since they do not work collectively under a factory or co-ordinate their work to produce. They remain fragmented. On the other hand, their living conditions continuously deteriorate with the exploitation of capital. In this situation, there appears the tendency to fall back upon primordial collective identities like caste, religion or region. All these divisions are evident in India today. What the IPL has done is to create another collective identity, which is easy to be a part of. You have to just sit and watch TV and be a part of the collective. The explosion of support for city-based corporate teams, which had no history is a result of this collective identity and the mass hysteria seen yesterday is the concrete manifestation of this collective. This is not to argue that only the workers of the unorganized sector or the sub-altern classes support KKR or any other team. But the point is that without their support, there is no ‘mass support’ because of their sheer numbers. Therefore, the support of this section is important. On the other hand, the implied homogeneity of KKR supporters subverts the heterogeneity of the masses who support the team. But this homogeneity is not real since the interests of Vijay Mallya or Shah Rukh Khan is not only different but contradictory to the interest of the unemployed or semi-employed youth who also wears a RCB or a KKR T-shirt and watch their matches. This collective then is essentially a veil over the class-divisions that exist in society. At least for the time, when the match is being played, cricket becomes the opium of the masses and it becomes increasingly difficult to have a revolution on a football (cricket) Sunday.
In the days of 24x7 media, it is not merely the match day or hour but the entire tournament is lived moment by moment 24x7. All the major issues of the country, rise in oil prices, corruption, scams etc are pushed to the background when the IPL is on. What better way to serve the government! However, this is not to deny the immense potential that the people have. History has taught us that the people see through every oppression, irrespective of the ideological mirages that are created by the rulers. Under globalized capitalism too, the people in the advanced countries have understood that the American dream of Hollywood was a chimera and thousands of people are on the streets demanding an end to neo-liberalism in the aftermath of the crisis. In our country too, the Indian growth story is coming to an end. The time is not far when neo-liberalism will be challenged by the people in our country. The day will come when people will be on the streets demanding an end of neo-liberalism, which perhaps will not be televised.